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Mackenzi Lee is set to continue exploring the teenage years of the Marvel Universe with the second in her three-book YA deal with Disney Publishing, this time traveling to space to deal with two fan-favorite characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.
Gamora & Nebula: Sisters in Arms follows Lee’s 2019 novel Loki: Where Mischief Lies, and explores the history of the two sisters with a tale set long before Gamora even considered working a career spent saving the lives of others.
Seeking to gain a mysterious artifact for Thanos, their adoptive father, Gamora and Nebula end up competing against each other in a contest set by the Grandmaster — but could the two end up uncovering the source of their rivalry in the process?
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Lee about the book, scheduled for release June 2021.
Gamora and Nebula’s relationship is one that’s captured the attention of many Marvel fans, as much for the intensity of its sibling rivalry as anything else; they’re both tragic figures whose lives have been dominated — and ruined — by Thanos, and shaped by trauma. As such, they’ve got to be fascinating characters to write, and especially at the point in their lives when you’re writing them — when they’re still both under the thumb of Thanos. Is that what drew you to choosing them as your next Marvel project?
When I was first offered the chance to write this series, the pitch from Marvel Press was “misunderstood heroes as teenagers,” with Loki as the first book. When we started talking about who the second book would be about, I knew I wanted to write about women, both because there is a huge discrepancy in the number of men and women characters in Marvel, and because we in society so rarely allow female characters to be complicated and morally gray in the same way we do men. They are often denied complete personhood because of their gender—we want the women we are asked to root for to be perfect, or else we call them unlikable.
I was introduced to Nebula and Gamora through the films, as most people were, and at first neither of them stood out to me because they are side characters to the men at the center of the stories they’re part of. But when I started to read more about their backstories and delve into their characters in the comics, I was obsessed. They have such a unique relationship that feels both doomed and hopeful. They’re sisters, warriors, enemies on the same side who have been weaponized against the galaxy and each other — two women who have been pitted against each other their whole lives and told that that rivalry made them stronger. For them, it’s hard to separate their real relationship, or what might have been their relationship, from the one that was fostered and manipulated by Thanos in order to make them who he wanted them to be.
I knew I wanted to write about Gamora and Nebula recognizing the manipulation in their lives, reevaluating their relationship with each other as a result, and then having to decide what they wanted to do about it, and if they can trust each other — or if they want to.
Despite her backstory in both comic and movie form, audiences are mostly familiar with Gamora as someone who’s independent and having broken away from Thanos. Who is she at the time when you’re writing her? The same with Nebula, who’s always been really defined by the trauma inflicted on her by Thanos (and others!) — is she a different character at this earlier point in her history?
In this book, Nebula and Gamora are both much younger than we usually see them, and they’re both in very different places. Gamora is fully integrated with Thanos’ military and is still very attached to him — because she’s the favorite daughter, it’s hard for her to see how toxic that relationship is.
Nebula, on the other hand, is very aware of the ways Thanos has mistreated them both and is operating much more independently. She’s reevaluating herself outside of Thanos’ military, and struggling to develop her own sense of self.
Over the course of the novel, we see some of the pivotal moments in their lives that result in their loyalties shifting, and their relationships to their father and each other calibrating as a result. It was such a fun challenge as an author to take two characters with existing positions, flip those positions, and then reverse engineer to figure out how they became who they are when most people know them.
Your story pushes Nebula and Gamora into conflict, as they were continually pushed by everyone around them, yet it also underscores the loyalty and, perhaps, love between them that exists despite everything. Where does that latter connection come from, in your mind? And how important is it to either character?
Part of the tension in the relationship between Nebula and Gamora comes from the fact that they care so much about each other — not only did they grow up together in a tough environment, they are both the last of their kind and have no home or family but Thanos and each other. They’ve also both been subject to the same abuse from their father, which both gives them a camaraderie and a rivalry, particularly once they start to realize the level of manipulation that has formed that has shaped the way they feel about each other.
In the book, they’re not only untangling how they actually feel toward each other from how Thanos told them to feel about each other, but also figuring out their relationship separate from Thanos’ manipulation, and how much of it can be saved. And if they want to.
Thanos has become one of the biggest — if not the biggest — Marvel villain in recent years, thanks to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. How much does he figure in the novel? What was it like to write him?
I don’t want to spoil too much, but Thanos is very much a presence in the novel. It’s impossible for Gamora and Nebula to exist separate from him, because of how his abuse has shaped them. So even when he’s not physically present in the book, he’s always there. Just before the novel starts, he’s also done something horrible that’s left Nebula both physically and mentally wounded, and Gamora complicit in his cruelty. The repercussions of that inform a lot of choices both sisters make throughout the novel.
Thanos is a difficult character to write, particularly through the point of view of his daughters, because he’s done so much damage to them but they aren’t yet aware of much of it. My favorite part of writing Thanos was writing his relationship with a literal personification of Death, which we see in the comics a lot but is never explored in the films.
What’s the most surprising thing for you about the book? Either in terms of writing it, or something in the book that you think is going to surprise the fans?
The book is a space western! When I first thought about writing Nebula and Gamora’s story, which would also be my first foray into sci-fi as a writer, I didn’t expect it would turn into a western. In creating the world of the novel, I drew inspiration from my roots in the west, my favorite westerns, and my favorite space westerns like Firefly and The Mandalorian. Plus I got to sprinkle in a little Mad Max, Hadestown, Westworld, steampunk, Tank Girl — basically everything I love.
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